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We are on the brink of a gambling epidemic

Sunday May 14 2017

A security guard frisks customers outside a betting parlour in Nairobi's city centre on July 30, 2016.  PHOTO | JEFF ANGOTE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

A security guard frisks customers outside a betting parlour in Nairobi's city centre on July 30, 2016. PHOTO | JEFF ANGOTE | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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Gambling is a big deal in Kenya. From detergents to toothpaste, you will often find a secret code promising untold riches should you ‘scratch and win’.

Mobile phone companies are also cashing in on this craze one way or another by facilitating online betting, and even by ‘rewarding’ their customers with extra airtime for using their gadgets, further encouraging the mentality of quick wins and instant gratification.

It has been argued that our obsession with gambling has to do with the structure of our society in which we have gradually demonstrated to young people that there is no formula for success in life.

We have shown that following laid down procedures and rules leaves you poor and destroyed at worst, and gifts you a middle-income lifestyle at best.


We have taught our youth that shortcuts do work, and that you cannot get ahead unless you know someone in high places to hold your hand.


In our minds, the only conceivable way to escape the relatively fixed caste system in this country is to bet on a windfall.

Based on the widely reported and celebrated big winnings, we believe that we stand a good chance of getting ahead financially by ‘investing ‘ relatively small amounts of money in bets.

Due to the unique way our brains have evolved, we ignore all evidence that most people who place bets lose, and that winners of big money are few and far between.


The individual gambler overestimates his chances of winning, basing this assumption on the daily reports of ordinary people winning big monies, and the glitzy advertising that announces the new available winnings.

This interesting behaviour has actually been very well studied by addiction biologists.

There are parts of the brain that are involved in making decisions about pleasure and pain.

These little organs analyse the composition of blood and other body fluids and determine when it is time to breathe in again, or to eat, or to rest, or even to go to the toilet.


A mechanism that prioritizes needs determines what actions are urgent and which ones can wait. Hence when your blood sugar is low, your entire body is primed to seek food so as to restore equilibrium.

Everything else pales into insignificance. The same happens when your body needs rest especially after extreme exertion with little sleep.

Despite your best efforts, your brain will keep shutting down periodically, even if you are engaged in an activity you think is extremely important.

Psychoactive substances like alcohol and opioids are notorious for hijacking these important brain circuits and setting themselves up as top priorities due to the temporary highs they give the user.

In susceptible brains, exposure to these drugs for a period of time results in the brain having difficulty functioning unless the substance is present in certain quantities in the blood.


As the concentration of the substance declines in circulation, the individual becomes more and more anxious and jittery, and the brain primes him to seek the substance since it has attained top priority in the hierarchy of needs.

This, in a very simplified manner, is the biology of addiction. Once this pattern is established, it becomes very difficult to reverse, and the individual spends more and more time seeking and using the substance to the detriment of all other activities.

Recent research has shown that gambling has exactly the same effect on the same brain regions.


The small irregular wins after placing bets serves to keep the individual betting, and the occasional ‘big’ win gives him a high similar to that obtained from intoxicating substances.

After some time, in vulnerable brains, the need for this high attains precedence and the person is no longer betting to win big, but betting in order to satisfy an inner craving. In such circumstances, the betting behaviour, just like drinking behaviour in those addicted to alcohol, can be said to have captured those important life-preserving areas of the brain leading to gambling addiction.

We might be on the verge of an epidemic, in my view!

Atwoli is Associate Professor and Dean, Moi University School of Medicine [email protected]